Strong Opinions: Competition crushing spirits

Strong Opinions: Competition crushing spirits

March 19, 2021

As college admission decisions continue to roll out for the graduating class of 2021, I think it is important to reflect on the ever changing landscape of applying to higher education. I speak largely from personal experience and observation of my peers but for most this is an incessantly stressful time. Many are led to believe that attending a prestigious college is all but an obligation and this pressure can become downright excruciating. As competition continues to heighten and become more cutthroat, these applications aren’t just tickets to careers or experiences anymore; for many, they’re valuations of self-worth. This culture is extremely toxic and destructive but is one caused by several tangible factors. 

Perhaps one of the biggest perpetrators behind college admissions and their dehumanizing structure is the College Board. The majority of standardized testing in high school is administered via the College Board and its programs. The Scholastic Aptitude Test, Pre-Scholastic Aptitude Test, Advanced Placement exams and more all operate through this organization. These have contributed immeasurably to the standardization of college admissions. I have personally felt in the past as if my scores on these tests defined me and I am certain others are familiar with this feeling. That in itself is a massive problem that’s promoted by the organization. What makes the College Board’s impact even worse than fundamentally making students feel like statistics however is the socioeconomic factors it takes advantage of. 

Every component of the College Board is monetized; from taking tests, to sending scores, to even applying for financial aid, virtually none of these services are free. While less financially fortunate students can apply for fee waivers in some instances, the amount of red tape involved in that process means students who can afford to pay for these many basic services outright are at a significant advantage. Students from more affluent backgrounds also have access to educational resources (tutors, classes, etc.) that many others don’t have the luxury of accessing. The College Board promotes these sort of programs to no end. Not only does the organization pressure teens into assessing themselves and their worth based on a calculable statistic but it implements and promotes classist techniques to advantage more well-off students. These strategies are deplorable, yet some of the biggest contributors to the toxic college admissions culture.    

Some colleges have started taking steps in the right direction to fix these problematic conditions though. For example, the University of California (UC) system has “[suspended] the standardized test requirement (ACT/SAT) for all California freshman applicants until fall 2024,” a move in part motivated by the Covid-19 pandemic but also by the aforementioned flaws in the standardized testing system. According to UC, “[This] decision marks the culmination of a two-year, research-based effort by UC to evaluate the value and use of standardized tests in admissions.” While these measures aimed at fixing the issues caused by standardized testing are steps in the right direction, the overarching problem of toxic academia doesn’t end there.

I believe as a whole that we should make efforts to give less emphasis to the value of prestige and education in general as a metric of success. While the pursuit of education is a fulfilling goal, the ease with which one can become engulfed in competition in the process is alarming. While things like test scores are part of the dehumanizing factor, when education is sought after in an effort to be above others instead of improving one’s self, that is in itself dehumanizing. Because of things like standardized testing and because of universities being largely highlighted for their prestige rather than their quality, education is continuing to head in this direction. I don’t know if there’s an easy, cut-and-dry solution to this growing trend, but I believe a change to it is still something to support. While self-improvement is something that is normally noble and worthwhile, if it comes at the expense of mental health and happiness, it is purely destructive. So for other nervous college applicants like myself, I beg you to keep in mind: you will be okay, you are more than a number, and you are certainly more than a “yes” or “no.”